At yesterday’s Oculus Connect keynote, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg proudly announced that Oculus had completed its first generation of products. A slide splashed three VR headsets across the stage: the casual Oculus Go; the high-end Oculus Rift; and the new, mid-range Oculus Quest. But if you’ve followed Oculus for a while, you might have noticed something missing: the cheap, phone-based Samsung Gear VR.
The Gear VR, made in partnership with Samsung, was technically Oculus’ first consumer product. It’s also one of the most popular VR headsets ever made — it had shipped 5 million units by January of 2017, an order of magnitude larger than Vive or Rift sales at that point. But its last major hardware update (a new controller!) was over a year ago, and with Oculus Go released, it’s barely gotten a mention at Oculus Connect so far.
I asked Nate Mitchell, Oculus’ VP of product, about the future of the Gear VR. “Gear VR is still a priority,” he tells The Verge. “A lot of the work that we’re doing on Oculus Go carries right over to Gear VR — they’re binary compatible. So a lot of the improvements we’ve been making to the software side, a lot of the products we’ve been investing in, are coming to Gear VR as well.” Both devices run almost exactly the same app and game catalog, so if developers are building for Oculus Go, the Gear VR won’t be left behind.
That said, “we are definitely deeply committed, though, to Go, and we really really want to make sure that it’s a huge success, and so the team has been pouring a lot of energy into that,” says Mitchell.
This focus makes sense from a branding perspective: the Gear VR, which only works with Samsung phones, has an inherently limited audience, and Samsung has its own VR ambitions that don’t include Oculus. But it could also signal that phone-based VR is on a path toward irrelevance. Phone and headset display panels are currently pretty similar, but Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash appeared at the Connect keynote to discuss how VR might move toward technology like waveguides, which are used in augmented reality headsets today. If that’s the case, strapping a phone to your face won’t be a good substitute.
So will there be a point where these two technologies diverge? “I think that might be the case; we’ll see,” Mitchell says. “I think the market will actually tell us a lot there.” In other words, don’t count the Gear VR out yet — but don’t expect big updates soon, at least from Oculus’ side.